What motives drive intellectual achievement?

I’ve always been interested in the motives which drive people to achievements of various kinds and of the sociological and rhetorical descriptions thereof. Keynes would have described his own motives as public spirited, though I don’t think he would have denied the gratification he got himself from the extraordinary success of his own endeavours.

I guess great achievement in the arts would also be described as driven by self-expression again without denying that this is also an expression also of self interest. Keynes’ was also the generation of intellectuals that refused to try to patent penicillin on the grounds that to do so would be dishonourable and against the public interest.

After the second world war a new kind of explanation came in for intellectual achievement at least in sociology. Robert Merton proposed that intellectual endeavour was driven by self interest rather less dignified by these higher motives. The idea is that an essentially Darwinian struggle goes on in ‘the market for ideas’ and the fittest ones survive.

I’ve not read Merton directly so I may be doing him a disservice but I’ve read Paul Samuelson who picked up various bits of philosophy and sociology second hand and somewhat bowdlerised from the zeitgeist of the time. Like Milton Friedman he picked some bowdlerized Popper as the justification for his own scientistic aspirations for what he was doing in economics.

He also adopted what he said was Merton’s ideas about the sociology of knowledge, saying simply that his own motives came down to avarice for fame. Without doubting the fact that self gratification is generally a major part of achievement of most kinds and certainly of intellectual achievement, I think it’s a pity that such a one-dimensional representation of motives becomes dominant. It certainly has its costs, one of which is the transformation of scholarly activity into a race for ‘citations’ rather than (at least in aspiration) something a little more sober, multi-dimensional and pubilc spirited.

Be that as it may, I was thinking all these thoughts as I listened to a very brief lecture by the director of one of our left of centre think tanks. He has described in detail his guilt at buying a coat that was more lavish than he thought appropriate. He didn’t want his own behaviour to demonstrate the materialism against which he rails publicly.

So when talking briefly about why he writes, I guess I thought I might hear him include something along the lines of that clich© “to make a better world”. But, at least in what went to air, there was not a bit of it. The things he enunciates are pure Merton and Samuelson avarice for glory is pretty much it, the desire to sell well and the cognate anxieties of flopping and of not being “at the outer edge of the zeitgeist”.

I applaud him for his candour, but admit to some disappointment nevertheless.

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Angharad
Angharad
15 years ago

I guess you have to be fairly confident about your own opinons these days before you can promote them as publicly and defiantly as Mr Hamilton. Perhaps there was a time when “thinkers” were respected, report and read for being thinkers. Perhaps there is a different media environment now that likes to stage a conflict of ideas now. TV and radio likes ‘talent’ and people like Mr Hamilton are able to get their ideas across well. That means we hear about them.

(I hope) there’s plenty of good thinkers and high achievers out there that we don’t hear about. Quieter, more gentle souls may be there, achieving out of the public eye.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

Yea, but he’s the crown idiot of the lot – there is nothing more intellectual about his dreck than there is about the idiot who is convinced that the Queen is shortly going to order a global financial collapse so as to cash in with her Jewish banker friends.

There are any number out there for sheer sense of achievement and accomplishment, I’ll bet happily on it.
Probably a lot more in science, and even in the drier areas of economics and law, and in business, than in Hamilton’s essentially only politics area of, er, study? work? self-promotion?.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

“What motives drive intellectual achievement?”

Fun.
‘To make a better world’ sounds so social worker-ish.

Rafe
15 years ago

Fun has got to be a part of the mix, a person who has no joy in playing with ideas will never stick to the task long enough to achieve much.

This is an engrossing topic which many people have researched extensively. Money is unlikely to be a big factor but the desire for fame or at least credit for priority is a big part of the deal for some. Hence the amusing history of feuds and also the ploys that people have used to get ideas up in a semi-public or disguised form so they can claim them later if they work, while avoiding loss of face if they are duds.

Liam Hudson’s review of the literature in “Contrary Imaginations” is a good source although biased towards psychoanalysis. He noted among other things a predatory attitude, tolerance of ambiguity and willingness to ignore boundaries in search of the prey.

Angharad
Angharad
15 years ago

The fun bit is probably different for different people. In a think tank, the fun would have to be in promoting ideas otherwise and being part of a public controversy.

But Jason, you could still have fun “making a better world”!

I like the idea that intellectual achievers have a “predatory attitude” and “tolerance of ambiguity” though.

dominique
dominique
15 years ago

In the modern world where a great majority of people are obsessed with physical/sporting successes, those who are thriving for intellectual achievement usually have an inquisitive mind, interested in learning and questioning. I doubt if any would have “predatory attitude”.

Angharad
Angharad
15 years ago

Maybe they aren’t predatory in the sense of stealing others ideas, but more predatory in claiming the space as their own.

A successful intellectual achiever would be someone who is aware of others ‘competing’ in the space and understands their strategies, perhaps is even influenced by them. But to be successful they can’t afford to be reactive, they have to be proactive and seek to set the agenda.

Seneca
15 years ago

I wouldn’t have the balls to try to comment on the bigger issue (especially on a Sunday morning, with a bad cold to boot) but I think understanding intellectuals’ motives and drives requires understanding their broad political outlook. In Hamilton’s case, he seems to be driven by an urge to prescribe and proscribe, rather than accept individuals’ own judgements as to their interests.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Actually, there is a fair bit of controversy surrounding Albert E and his tendency not to credit the work of others. There is even a book on the subject. His earliest paper on the photo-electric effect was originally written with his Serbian wife, Mileva Maric, but the published version bore his name only. His paper on special relativity amazingly contains zero references, which if nothing else suggests a man who does not see his own work as part of a greater whole. Then there is the controversy of David Hilbert submitting a paper with the general relativity field equations a week before Einstein.

The KKK have lapped this stuff up, Albert of course being Jewish. However, the suggestion that Einstein copied Hilbert’s equations has more or less been discredited and probably the reverse was true. What is clear to me in my own experience is that many of the most successful intellectuals are self promoters and given to egotism. Which, as Nick says, is rather disappointing. But I prefer to think that at the moment of intellectual creation something special happens, and the trivial battles for credit afterwards are best foregiven and forgotten.